Buy Our CDs

The Zemel Choir: Zemel Goes Stateside

 

The Zemel Choir: Celebrate With Song

Sacred Days of Strasbourg

Click on the flyer to find out about this multi-faith event we are performing in

Benjamin Wolf

 

 

Stay In Touch with Zemel

 

Win Concert Tickets and CD’s 

A Personal History

A personal account of Peter Pollak’s 40 years in Zemel !


Charity Concert 1st December

To buy tickets- Please click on the Flyer

On 1st December, the Zemel Choir will be giving a Charity Concert to support Barnet Alzheimer’s in the provision of Dementia Cafes in the London Borough of Barnet. 
In addition to an upbeat and varied repertoire from the Zemel Choir, there will be Kosher Food and drinks as well as a magician.
As the Prime Minister said in a recent speech “the truth is that dementia now stands alongside cancer as one of the greatest enemies of humanity.”
With over 800,000 diagnosed with this cruel illness, Dementia Café’s such as the Finchley Memorial Hospital Dementia Café, provide a most valuable support to those families affected. 
Originally funded by charitable donations raised by Councillor Lisa Rutter when she was Mayor of Barnet in 2011 to 2012, she has continued her charitable work by running the Dementia Café for the last year in the most commendable way.
Indeed, she is a shining example of how a local politician is helping to engage with dementia sufferers and their carers by making a real difference in the community.
To support Barnet Alzheimer’s and the provision of Dementia Cafes, the Zemel Choir is proud to provide its services for such a worthy cause.
 

Search Zemel's Site
Robert Brody

Yom Zeh L’Yisroel-Zemel Choir with Tenor Soloist Robert Brody, Conducted by Benjamin Wolf.- (arr. Jacobson) 

 

Composers of Jewish Choral Music

The Zemel Choir was formed to explore the Jewish and Israeli choral music repertoire.   Some of our composers and arrangers are household names, others decidedly not.   Increasingly, there is biographical information on major and minor composers appearing on the Internet;  so I have not notated the lives of literally every composer whose music the Choir has performed.   Instead, this section is devoted to a handful of the really important figures in Jewish and Israeli music, and perhaps more importantly, to what the Zemel Choir has done to perform and record their music.  

Comments and suggestions on this section are most welcome. Daniel Tunkel

Louis Lewandowski (1821-94)

Lewandowski may perhaps be regarded as the foremost of the great composers of music for the 19th century synagogue.   His compositions dominated German synagogue music in particular, and derive from his long career as choirmaster in Berlin (first at the old Heidereutergasse Synagogue, and from 1866 at the New Synagogue, in Oranienbuergerstrasse.   From Germany, they spread across Europe and to the newer Jewish communities in America, South Africa and Australia, as well as to Palestine/Israel.

He was born in 1821 to a poor family in Wreschen, in what is now western Poland, and came to Berlin as a 12-year-old and worked as a singerl (boy singer) together with the then cantor of Berlin’s premier synagogue, one Ascher Lion.   Two things seem to have radically changed Lewandowski’s outlook on musical life and the opportunities it presented, when still in his late teens.   First, he secured the patronage of Alexander Mendelssohn (nephew of the late Moses, the philosopher of the Enlightenment, and cousin of Felix, the composer) which allowed him to study at the Berlin Academy of Music - the first Jew to do so.   Secondly, the visit to Berlin of itinerant Cantor Hirsch Weintraub and his own small choir in 1838 galvanised the small Berlin community into action.   Proper choral singing in the synagogue (as opposed to the cantor-plus-ad-hoc-trio, which had prevailed from the 18th century or earlier) was swinging into fashion, since the innovations of Salomon Sulzer in Vienna of the mid-1820s.   The Berlin community and Cantor Lion had access from 1839 or so the Sulzer’s first published volume of his own compositions, Schir Zion, but Lion could only read from the treble clef and Sulzer had not obliged (setting all his upper parts to differently positioned C-clefs), and the result on Lion’s limited coaching skills was almost certain too cacophonous for words.   Lewandowski was called upon to assist, and from that point on, became the Jewish world’s first ever officially appointed choir master.

Of his studies at the Berlin Academy, relatively little is known for certain, and there are stories of his great feats in composition and the winning of prizes.   Whether these are accurate or apocryphal is difficult to tell;  suffice to say, of the symphony he supposedly composed and other chamber works, no trace is now thought to survive.

The Heidereutergasse Synagogue, developed on conventional orthodox Jewish lines, did not have an organ.   However, for the building of the New Synagogue, a quite massive organ was installed, amid a measure of controversy.   Lewandowski supported the installation, and wrote at length about it to the committee overseeing the building works, in 1862, and his arguments in favour of the use of the organ, eventually prevailed.   Bearing in mind that this synagogue was constructed to seat over 3,000 people (it was, until its effective destruction in the early years of World War Two, the largest synagogue by seating capacity in the world), the organ was in the end an indispensable acoustic requirement, simply in order to marshal the services and make the music audible to all parts.

Lewandowski’s two major collections of music for the synagogue were published well into his career.   Kol Rinah u’Tfillah dates from 1871, and is largely solo voice or simple choral material, and much of it one supposes dated from his early career at the Heidereutergasse Synagogue (though there is no certain way of telling).   Todah w’Simrah was published in 1876, with a second component a few years later, and was conceived on a much grander scale, with four-part chorus and organ accompaniment pretty much throughout.  It is from this second set that Lewandowski’s music is typically performed today.  

Lewandowski’s music is conceived in a grand German style.   The organ is as much a component as the cantor and the choir (even though it is clearly possible to perform almost all of his material without organ).   The other key observation is that Lewandowski clearly intends the music to be pre-eminent.   He crafts excellent melodies, but then forces the Hebrew to them.   Unlike Sulzer, Lewandowski was clearly no great Hebraist.   Sulzer was far more concerned with liturgy as such, while Lewandowski’s music is all about music per se, and the use of music to make power statements about the context of the liturgy.   It is not clear how competent an organist Lewandowski was (or whether he played at all);  he did, however, compose a significant amount of organ music, and what has survived was based almost always on Jewish melodies or cadences.   Possibly his best-known set are his Five Festival Preludes, which dwell rhapsodically on some of the major traditional melodies of the five pivotal festivals of the Jewish calendar.

Lewandowski, again unlike Sulzer, was keen to break into the Gentile musical world.   Although chamber materials composed while a student do not seem to have survived, one important publication, from 1882, has:  this comprises 18 Psalm settings for chorus using German translations.   Opinions as to its standing vary;  some will say that it is not really music of a standard comparable to his synagogue settings in Hebrew.   These compositions are rarely if ever performed today.

The Oranienbuergerstrase Synagogue was ransacked, along with almost all synagogues and Jewish centres in Germany, on Kristallnacht in November 1938.   Paradoxically, it was not even severely damaged on that occasion, apparently because the Berlin Chief of Police succeeded in chasing away the Nazi fire-raisers by reminding them that the building had historical monumental protection under an edict of the erstwhile Kings of Prussia.   The nave of the synagogue did not, however, survive Allied bombing raids in the course of World War II.   After the War, this part of Berlin fell behind Communist lines, and the well of the synagogue was demolished and the land sold for development.   That left the imposing facade and a number of community meeting rooms, integrated into the building line of Oranienbuergerstrasse itself, which were allowed over two generations to fall almost to ruin.   They were restored after Berlin was reunited, and in the first full year after reunification, the German Postal Service issued stamps depicting Lewandowski (from a portrait in mid-life) and the facade of the New Synagogue in all its original glory.   Today the restored facade and chambers behind constitute a museum, largely devoted to material on the development of the Berlin Jewish Community and concentrating specifically on the Inter-War years and life in the 1930s under the rise of Nazism.   One small case is devoted to Lewandowski, with no actual live musical exhibit, which is rather disappointing when one considers that the real surviving legacy of that distinguished building was the music of Louis Lewandowski. Lewandowski stepped down from his position at the Oranienbuergerstrasse Synagogue in 1893, apparently for health reasons, and passed away the next year.   His grave, and that of his wife, are still to be found at Berlin’s Weissesee Jewish Cemetery.

To mark the centenary of his death, the Zemel Choir with Victor Tunkel produced a concert at St John’s Smith Square, which included principally a range of his liturgical pieces, though also a number of other musical curios.   The liturgical elements of this well-received concert were recorded in 1995 on the Choir’s disc Louis Lewandowski:  Choral and Cantorial Works, which is more fully described at http://www.zemelchoir.org/zemel_choir_recordings/.

Lewandowski’s music naturally forms a part of the Choir’s routine repertoire.   In December 2011, the Choir was one of 7 from around the World invited to participate in a Lewandowski Festival, held in Berlin, and clips from the concerts on that tour can be found on this web site. 

 

Samuel Alman (1877-1947)

Alman was the dominant figure in Anglo-Jewish synagogue and general music in the first four decades of the 20th century.   The exodus of Jews and Jewish talent from Russia and Eastern Europe that propelled the likes of Zavel Zilberts, Mayer Machtenberg and Leo Low (to name but a few) to musical careers of great note in the United States brought Alman, instead, in about 1904, to London.  He was born in the tiny South Ukrainian town of Sobolevka in 1877, apparently the 6th of 14 children, and showed extreme musical promise from a very early age.   He studied music formally at the conservatory in Odessa and served 4 years in the Tsarist Russian army in the 1890s (probably as a bandsman rather than in the front line), before fleeing increasing antisemitism and pogrom activity throughout the Russian Empire at the start of the 20th century.

From 1905, he seems to have been able to enrol at the Royal College of Music to extend his formal education in London, and at the same time served for a few years as choirmaster of the Dalston Synagogue, moving from there briefly to the Great Synagogue, Duke’s Place, at about the turn of World War I and to the relatively recently established Hampstead Synagogue in 1916.   That position he held for 30 years.   Most of his synagogue music compositions date from this period, and appeared in two volumes, both called Shirei Beis HaKnesses, published in 1925 and 1938.

Alman was the first in London to seek to bring Jewish music to a wider audience than the synagogue, and indeed, to create a genre of Jewish concert or performance music.  As well as his longstanding position at Hampstead, he founded and ran two other choirs.  First, there was the choir of the London Chazzanim Association, where he marshalled the resources of many of the fine cantors serving synagogues in London in the 1920s and 1930s (although the London Chazzanim Association does, technically, still exist, its capacity to organise anything of this sort has long since passed).   Secondly and more importantly, there was the Halevy Choral Society, a mixed choir that performed Jewish music for concert purposes (much of it either composed or arranged by Alman). Although this has been defunct for many years now, it served as an influence on the formation, after World War 2, of other groups that concentrated on the expanding repertoire of Jewish and, in due course, Israeli concert music, including in due course, one supposes, the Zemel Choir itself.

Alman contributed to the world of true grand opera the only work in Yiddish:  King Ahaz.   As distinct from the numerous musicals and light operas composed in Eastern Europe and in the USA for the theatrical stage, this was a work composed on a grand scale, with bravura solo parts, a full operatic chorus and an orchestra.   It received 4 performances in a theatre in the East End of London in 1912, which accrued almost ruinous losses and it was forced to close.   Biographical notes in the two Shirei Beis HaKnesses volumes claim over 30 performances for King Ahaz overall, but if so, it is not known where or when the other 26+ were staged Alman’s instrumental music included 11 Organ Preludes and the Ebraica String Quartet;  sadly, none of this
material is much performed today.

Alman retired from Hampstead in 1946.   Having produced some of the finest synagogue music ever composed in the UK, and having not so much re-edited as completely recrafted the 1933 edition of the United Synagogue Blue Book of service music for the Jewish Year, he was given an appointment to the newly created position of Director of Music for the entire United Synagogue.   He held this for barely a year before his death.   The concept of a position of director of music for the entire orthodox synagogue movement died with him.

These days, Alman’s music is almost never performed in the synagogue service, aside from a bare handful of old favourites, because much of it is too technically demanding for the impoverished resources of contemporary synagogue choirs.   Those pieces which do feature from time to time include his choral Sfiras HoOmer service (the counting of the Omer takes place between Passover and Shavuot, coinciding in most years with the second half of April and the month of May;  Alman was almost certainly the first person to compose music specifically for this service).

The Zemel Choir has performed various pieces of Alman in concert. Perhaps most memorable was 2006 performance of the Chorus Scene from Act II of King Ahaz, in what was most likely its first performance in 94 years.   The 2007-8 concert season included Zochreinu B’zikoron Tov (from the Rosh Hashanah service) and Ribono Shel Olom (from the Sfiras HoOmer service).   The English Tradition of Jewish Choral Music (OCD 647), recorded by the Zemel Choir in 1996, features parts of the Sfiras HoOmer service, along with the very graceful Tal Tein (the Passover prayer for dew) and two of the Organ Preludes.

 

Paul Ben Haim (1897 - 1984)

Paul Ben Haim is a father-figure of contemporary Israeli art and classical music.   He was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich.   His father Heinrich (Haim) was a judicial official.   Records at the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich, rebuilt and opened anew in 2006, indicate that Ben Haim’s parents were among the Jews of Munich who were deported and killed by the Nazis.

Munich’s Jewish community was never large, reaching a modest 13,000 at its early 20th century peak, but had a strong synagogue music tradition nonetheless, including the likes of Max Loewenstamm and Emanuel Kirchner, with which one assumes the young Ben Haim would have been familiar.

Ben Haim studied music, piano and composition at the Munich Academy of Arts during World War I, and from 1920 to 1924 worked alongside Bruno Walter as assistant conductor at the Munich Opera.   From 1931 he devoted his life chiefly to composition, completing among other things a large oratorio Yoram in that year, his last major work before fleeing to Palestine.   His musical output and influences changed conspicuously when his emigration brought him into contact with Jewish and general Levantine folk music melos.   He Hebraicised his name to “Ben Haim”, borrowing his patronymic for the purpose, and became part of a circle of composers and musicians who had emigrated to Palestine from various parts of Europe and were seeking to create in effect a new form of Palestinian-Jewish music.   He completed two symphonies in 1940 and 1945 and has a number of other orchestral works to his credit.

Among his choral music, the Zemel Choir has performed and recorded his motet Roni Akarah (originally composed in 1957 for Israel’s Rinat Choir) and has performed his Six Ladino Songs, published in 1968.

For more information, including discographical data, see http://www.bookrags.com/biography/paul-ben-haim/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Ben-Haim, and the sources there quoted.

 


Julius Mombach (1813-80)

Julius Lazarus Mombach (Israel Eliezer, to give his Hebrew name) is the most important of the composers of synagogue music in the Anglo-Jewish tradition of the 19th Century.   And yet, as the bicentenary of his birth approaches, he remains much more of a “man of mystery” than he deserves.   Mombach melodies are sung in English-speaking communities the world over (with the general exception of the USA) by appreciative congregations who have almost certainly never heard of him by name and do not know that what they are singing is anything other than “traditional”.

Mombach was born in the small central German town of Pfungstadt, which is slightly to the south of Darmstadt and of Frankfurt-am-Main.   The family name derives from an area of the Rhineland, not far from Mainz, suggesting that probably not all that long beforehand, his immediate family had lived in or near to Mainz. Pfungstadt even today is a very small town of about 50,000, and apparently claims its chief export to be an acclaimed locally-brewed beer. Lovers of Mombach’s music will have reason to differ with this opinion.


Mombach came to London in 1827, in the company of Binom Elias (or Eliasson), a native of Darmstadt and the newly recruited chief cantor  for the Great Synagogue, Duke’s Place.   Elias was obliged in his contract to provide a singing companion, or meshorrer, to augment the musical resources of the Great Synagogue.   The tradition in this early period was for the cantor to sing in the company of a meshorrer and a bass, forming an ad hoc trio. History does not relate whether by 1827, when Mombach would have been around 14, his voice had broken; the meshorrer function was variously for a treble or a tenor, so this probably would not have mattered.

Elias’s cantorial career was short-lived;  he caught a chill and this was allowed to disable his singing voice sufficiently that by 1829 he left his position.   He remained in London as the musical director of one of the principal theatres.   Mombach, however, remained in the service of the Great Synagogue, working with Elias’s successor, Solomon Ascher, from 1831.   In 1841, he took a hand in the formation of the Great’s first full choir. Bearing in mind that by this time, the Jewish communities of Western Europe were all developing the choral-cantorial structure that Sulzer had pioneered in Vienna from 1825, it was perhaps a matter of time before London’s principal synagogue did likewise.   However, Chief Rabbi Solomon Herschall, whose long tenure of office ended with his passing in 1840, expressly forbade the use of sheet music, which one assumes he considered to be goyish. One supposes that this delayed the point at which a proper trained chorus could be formed.

Mombach presided over the chorus for the next four decades.   Initially it seems he was its tenor, the original bass from the ad hoc trio (a Mr Lewis) became the first bass, and youngsters were recruited and trained to sing the treble and alto parts.   Mombach composed a substantial amount of music for this chorus.   By the 1860s, however, he was dividing his time between the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place and the New Synagogue in Great St Helens. His Sabbath morning ritual seems to have commenced at the New, and when he entered the Great during the reading of the Haftarah, the congregation would rise in acknowledgment of him.

He died, it would seem quite suddenly, in 1880.   His wife predeceased him by some 17 years and they had had no children.   Unlike his distinguished European contemporaries Sulzer, Lewandowski and Naumboug, he published no music in his lifetime, nor (it seems) left us with any of his jottings or thoughts on paper.  Within a year, a large folio volume entitled Neim Zmiros Yisroel appeared, edited by Moses Kaizer, the emeritus assistant cantor of the Great Synagogue.   Much of the little we know of Mombach derives from the 2-page preface to that book. It purports to be the definitive compendium of his compositions and arrangements, but there is much in it claimed for Mombach that he did not compose (or perhaps even arrange), including certain melodies which other sources would indicate had been in use at the Great in at least 1800 if not earlier.   The preface claims for Mombach that his music is superior to the compositions of all but his supposed equal Sulzer.   A grand claim indeed, but in truth Mombach is very singable (in melody and harmony) and it is for that reason that so much has indeed survived as the traditional backbone of Anglo-Jewish synagogue music.   His compositional style owes quite a bit to Mendelssohn, and it is noteworthy that motifs from Elijah appear in a number of his pieces.

The Zemel Choir recorded one of his several settings for Psalm 24 (L’Dovid Mizmor) on The English Tradition of Jewish Choral Music.

 

 

The Songs of Solomon (1623)Salamone Rossi (c. 1570 - c 1630)

Rossi may be credited with being the earliest identifiable composer of Jewish choral music. He spent much of his career as a court musician in the service of the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua. There is actually evidence of a number of Jews in the service of the Duchy of Mantua at this period, as composers and performers, although Rossi is unique among them in having produced music for the synagogue service as well.

His Jewish output, published in 1623 in Venice under the title Hashirim Asher Lishlomo (literally, “The Songs of Solomon”, and a play on the name of the eponymous biblical book title), comprises 33 settings for mixed-voice chorus taken from the synagogue service for use in the community in Ferrara. Rossi was encouraged to compose in the emergent Renaissance polyphonic style by Rabbi Judah (Leon) of Modena, although there is no actual evidence for the use made of Rossi’s music in the service in Ferrara (or anywhere else). The settings range in complexity from a simple three-part Barchu to compositions for double-four-part chorus for Psalms 111 and 112. The Zemel Choir has performed a number of Rossi’s compositions in concert.

Debate about the Jewishness of this music continues; the resonance is not at all Jewish, it would seem, and is much closer to the music of his distinguished contemporary Claudio Monteverdi (with whom Rossi and members of his family worked on musical performances at various times). However, use in various pieces of seven-bar phrases (as opposed to 4-bar or 8-bar phrases more typical of contemporary music) is supposedly evidence of Jewishness slipping into his compositional style.

For Jewish choruses, Rossi is something of a super-hero: a first in the field, and a composer of competent Renaissance period music that bears comparison with his Gentile contemporaries, even if its conception is much simpler. He appears to have passed away a matter of years before the Gonzaga Dynasty itself died out, leading to a period of war and Jewish repression in North Italy. For two centuries his Jewish output fell into disuse, until rediscovered and re-edited in the mid-19th century in Paris by Samuel Naumbourg and Vincent d’Indy. It has reappeared in further critical editions subsequently. For further information please refer to  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salamone_Rossi and the sources there quoted.

 

Salomon Sulzer (1804-90) 

Sulzer is the father-figure of Ashkenazi synagogue music of the modern era. Before Sulzer, most Ashkenazi cantors were musically illiterate. Synagogues lacked choirs, and much of the traditional modality of Jewish music (which we take for granted today) had fallen into disuse. Cantors in the 18th century in Germany and Central Europe had, instead, taken to their hearts snatches of baroque and classical music (gleaned from street musicians and folksingers) to create inappropriately gaudy and trite compositions of their own.

Sulzer came from a traditional Jewish family from Hohenems, in the Vorarlberg region of Western Austria. According to a legend associated with his early years, he was rescued as a toddler from drowning and in gratitude, his parents resolved to devote him to holy purposes. As well as receiving a yeshiva education in Switzerland, he studied music formally in Karlsruhe and returned to Hohenems as its cantor at the age of 16.

In his 21st year, he sought 6 weeks’ leave of absence to travel to Vienna, where he instead remained for about 65 years. He became an institution at Vienna’s newly consecrated Seitenstettengasse-Tempel, alongside the fiery Rabbi Isaak Noa Mannheimer. He organised and trained to a high standard a four-part chorus of men and boys to officiate at services and support his role as cantor. Lacking suitable music, Sulzer composed a significant weight of material, using a combination of contemporary Schubertian melos and, in all appropriate cases, Jewish modes and motifs in the places where these belonged.

Sulzer in fact befriended Franz Schubert, who composed a setting of part of Ps 92 for Sulzer’s and the choir’s use. When Schubert died in 1828, aged just 30, Sulzer lost a close friend and admirer. Although Schubert was the only Gentile composer in the first rank to have composed music for Sulzer’s use (others included lesser lights such as Josef Drechsler and Ignaz von Seyfried), there is an intriguing if entirely circumstantial link between Sulzer and none other than Beethoven himself. In 1826, Beethoven was invited to compose music for the Stadttempel synagogue consecrated on April 9, 1826dedication of the Seitenstettengasse-Tempel, a commission he eventually turned down. By this stage in his life, Beethoven was completely deaf. Should he, perchance, have asked to understand what music the Jews of Vienna used (so as to empathise with the commission), he would have had to be shown score; and Sulzer was the only person likely to have been both knowledgeable and sufficiently trained to notate score for Beethoven to review. In this connection, it is intriguing to note that in this same year, Beethoven completed work on his String Quartet in C# Minor Opus 131. This work, especially in its first and sixth movements, has uncannily Jewish echoes; indeed, the melody line from the 6th has a strong resemblance to the Kol Nidrei melody from Yom Kippur.

Chief among Sulzer’s published Jewish music are his two Schir Zion volumes, from 1838-40 and 1865. Towards the end of his life, with the assistance of his youngest son Josef, he commenced re-editing this music but passed away before he could complete the project. A conflated edition of Schir Zion was produced in 1954 in the US-published Out of Print Classics series.   Sulzer had a high baritone voice, which won fame in Vienna and beyond in broader musical circles. But one generally had to come to the synagogue to hear him perform, as he did not participate in concerts or secular music performances. And many prominenti did: Liszt, for example, as well as Meyerbeer and famed music critic Eduard Hanslick.

Through both his music and his personal bearing, Sulzer brought a widely acclaimed dignity to the office of cantor, and cantors from all over Europe and beyond sought to emulate this. Within a generation of Sulzer’s arrival in Vienna, Jewish communities from St Petersburg to New York had their cantors, choirs and, in time, their published music as well. To mark the centenary of his passing, the Austrian post office issued a commemorative Sulzer postage stamp in 1990 - as far as is known, no other cantor has ever received this recognition, before or since.

In 1990, marking the centenary of his passing, the Zemel Choir performed Sulzer’s music at a lecture-concert, produced and compared by Victor Tunkel. The music from that occasion and an edited and illustrated version of the companion text may be purchased on the Zemel Choir’s CD Synagogue Music in the Age of Schubert: Salomon Sulzer and His Contemporaries.

Further information:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salomon_Sulzer  and the sources there quoted.